Where the heck is Canada? As the world tunes in to the ongoing smorgasbord of soccer matches played in South Africa, there's a nagging question that needs answering: Why does Canada have no team at the 2010 FIFA World Cup?
"The simple answer is we didn't qualify," said the Canadian men's national team head coach Stephen Hart, from his home in Halifax, N.S. "It's sort of the million dollar question that goes around all the time. It's something that's easier to talk about than actually get done."
Let's talk about it, then. A more detailed answer starts with this: Canada is one of the few countries that tried to qualify while lacking its own domestic professional soccer league.
And not enough Canadians end up playing in the top pro leagues abroad: According to Hart, there are just 12 Canadians playing on Major League Soccer teams across North America and about 30 scattered in various overseas leagues. That makes for slim pickings for the national team. That's quite the contrast to hockey.
"I think we're a very young soccer nation," said Hart. "All the countries that we have to qualify against have domestic leagues and have players playing abroad as well, so their base is far greater than ours. We haven't looked after the game domestically."
Soccer is the most popular recreational sport in Canada in terms of numbers, but that doesn't matter. Elite level is something else entirely. Canada hasn't qualified a men's team for a World Cup since 1986. So what's it going to take?
A rather optimistically-named Soccer Canada document,Wellness to World Cup,outlines the various challenges and proposes a wish list of solutions and yardsticks. Among them, it estimates that Canadian soccer needs to set a minimum target if it's ever going to qualify for the World Cup.
"Canada's system of player development must ensure, after 10 years of quality programming, that at least six of 40,000 eight-year-olds who play soccer each year will eventually debut for a professional team in one of the top 10 professional leagues in the world," notes the report. "This target is consistent with World Cup players of the national teams which traditionally reach the top rankings of FIFA. To help our players reach this advanced stage of development, professional soccer in Canada must be expanded at a variety of levels through partnership with provincial and regional associations, as well as the private sector."
Certainly, Major League Soccer, the top pro soccer league in North America, should help expand those opportunities. Toronto FC will be joined by teams from Montreal in 2012 and Vancouver next year. Still, the harsh fact remains that even with an improved national team, Canada will always be in tough to snag one of the three or four spots through its killer CONCACAF division, which includes 35 national teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Can it be done? As coach, Hart remains optimistic. That's part of his job description.
"Anybody that goes in to the job, you have to look at it in a very positive light," said Hart. "I mean, there are a lot of small countries that have done well that we can all learn from. Hopefully with the professional clubs coming on board, we will build towards what we actually need."
The Canadian team will regroup in early September before playing a pair of international friendly matches on Sept. 4 against Peru at BMO Field in Toronto and Sept. 7 against Honduras at Stade Saputo in Montreal.
In the meantime, coach Hart watches the World Cup from his home in the Maritimes, cheering not for any one country, but for beautiful playing.